“The wager between Heaven and Hell is on Earth.”
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weiss, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou and Shia laBeouf
Grumpy, terminally ill misanthrope John Constantine works as a freelance exorcist, deporting demons to Hell if they cross a line and upset the Balance. When a plot to destroy the Balance forever comes to light, Constantine must rally for one final battle.
John Constantine (Reeves) is a miserable bastard who swaggers around in a cab driven by his scrappy apprentice, Chas (laBeouf), being all badass at demons and then sending them back to Hell. He is also dying of lung cancer due to his chain smoking and bound for Hell for having attempted suicide as a teenager. When Angela Dodson (Weiss) draws him into the investigation of her devoutly Catholic sister Isabel’s suicide, he senses something big is on the horizon, and despite the refusal of the angel Gabriel (Swinton) and neutral mystic Papa Midnite (Hounsou) to help him, he sets out for one last ride into oblivion, to flip off the Devil one last time.
What’s wrong with it?
A lot of the film’s problems, but by no means all, come down to one thing: Keanu Reeves as John Constantine. Constantine is rough-edged, abrasive, spiky and Liverpudlian, and Reeves is… well, none of these things, and the direction fails to demand it of him. “This is John Constantine,” he purrs intensely when it should be snapped out as if everyone should know what it means without having to make it seem important. Conversely, he is in general too laid back; he lacks the sneer to make the swagger and when he does go intense it seems too much of an effort.
The director is also a little too in love with slightly bizarre framing choices and dramatic devices. As Constantine drops a bombshell on Angela, a bus thunders past behind him as punctuation, but the scene lingers as it pulls away, turning a sharp exclamation into an unfulfilling ellipsis. In a later scene, Angela faces Constantine and she is viewed through a green glass screen; this one looks like it was lifted straight from a comic panel.
The film’s cosmology is also kind of inconsistent. Gabriel tells Constantine that he is irrevocably damned for his attempted suicide, and yet zir motivation for helping Mammon be born on Earth is fuck you, humanity; you can get forgiven anything just by asking it. Well… apparently not. Or did Constantine just never think about going to confession or asking Jesus Christ to be his personal saviour?
Gabriel accessorises zir angelic white pajamas with mental patient wrist-tags (presumably from those patients now possessed by demons) and, for some reason, a pair of pale cream cowboy chaps.
The post credits scene just makes a mockery of the entire cosmology.
Despite being a tough cop and powerful psychic, Angela achieves almost nothing proactively. She is involved in one fight, in which she uselessly – if impressively – fires thirty-three bullets from her eight shoot automatic into an indestructible Mexican.
What’s right with it?
Tilda Swinton is of course awesome as an androgynous nutjob of an angel.
The visual effects were impressive at the time and some of them still stand up today.
How bad is it really?
Constantine makes one colossal bonehead move which blights any qualities it might have. It’s based on the Hellblazer comics series, telling the adventures of John Constantine, freelance exorcist, demonologist and master(ish) of the dark arts; also angry, misanthropic Scouse git. Constantine is a character that few people really knew before the film, but those who did were passionate about the series. The filmmakers’ big mistake, therefore, was taking this cult hero and fundamentally reshaping him for the big screen, thus producing a comic book adaptation (and it’s hard to think in 2014, but that used to be a risky genre) with neither brand recognition nor the approval of the hyper-zealous fan base.
This might have mattered less if the result was a really good film, but it isn’t; it’s… okay at best. It leaves one with too many questions and not quite enough sense of spectacle to just go with it.
Best bit (if such there is)?
- The ludicrous awesomeness of Constantine’s improvised shotgun made of relics.
- Facing down a room full of demons, John climbs on a chair with his lighter to trigger the sprinklers, which Chas has filled with holy water.
- Unable to confront the big bad, Constantine instead rats him out to Lucifer (a surprise Peter Stormare), thus doing the Devil a solid. By then asking for the release of Isabel’s soul instead of his own life, he earns back his place in Heaven, forcing Lucifer to save his life in order to give him another chance to screw up.
What’s up with…?
- The ‘rules’ of the universe? People keep telling Constantine that stuff which has happened is impossible; not against the rules or the balance, but impossible. Whence comes this existential absolutism in a complex world of vermin demons and voodoun?
- Midnite offers Chas membership of his club if he comes back from the final battle, but there is no membership; access is granted by ESPing a flash card.
- Chas turning into an angel? That doesn’t fit with anything you’ve told us.
- Why does Lucifer descend to speak to Constantine?
Production values – The film still looks pretty good today; no mean feat even at just shy of a decade old. The washed out sepias of the palette probably help, the overall stylisation making the effects less jarring. 5
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue is okay; rarely appalling, but never scintillating. The performances vary immensely, with Swinton and Hounsou coming out best, largely because they throw themselves into the crazier aspects of the film, whereas the leads are all terribly serious about it. 12
Plot and execution – The story is mostly pretty good, although it requires a tonne of front-loading (or actually mid-loading, as most of it is dropped in over tea halfway in) just to explain the status quo, which makes it hard to generate the proper tension over the changing intensity. 13
Randomness – Gabriel’s motivation flat out clashes with Constantine’s; one of them is being too stupid to live. Constantine also has the one-use each gadget kit. 9
Waste of potential – Hellblazer is a cult classic; Constantine aims for a broad crowdpleaser and ends up a shambles, neither true enough for cult appeal nor accessible enough to draw in the newbies. 16